KABUL — Opposition candidates’ bid to overturn Afghanistan’s election was fizzling last night as dissenters began backing down on demands that the historic vote be declared void.
The government set up an independent commission yesterday to investigate claims of widespread fraud and incompetence that had threatened to undermine the previous day’s otherwise relatively successful proceedings.
Millions of jubilant voters headed to the polls, and violence threatened by the Taliban did not materialize, but the event turned toward chaos when the 15 candidates challenging President Hamid Karzai demanded that the election be cancelled because the nitrate ink used to stain voters’ fingers and prevent them from voting more than once could be easily wiped off. They also charged that thousands of ballot boxes were being stuffed in Mr. Karzai’s favour.
Yesterday, however, several independent election organizations and foreign observers called the voting fair.
Robert Barry, head of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which sent 40 election experts (two of them Canadian), said the demands were unjustified, although he acknowledged that there were some reports of voters being told whom to choose at polling booths.
“I do not believe the problems were widespread, and in general it was well organized considering the complexities of the vote,” he said. The opposition candidates’ challenge “would put into question the expressed will of millions of Afghan citizens who came out to vote . . . despite great personal risk.”
The election “represents an important milestone in the country’s democratic transition and an impressive achievement of the Afghan people,” Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew said in a statement issued yesterday.
In Washington, U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice predicted the vote would be judged legitimate. “I’m just certain of it,” she said.
Western diplomats led by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad were pressing the candidates to reconsider their boycott. A cabinet minister said the leaders of the challenge, including Shia Hazara candidate Mohammed Mohaqiq and Yunis Qanooni, Mr. Karzai’s biggest rival, were reconsidering.
“They know they are going to lose,” the minister said. “Now the objective is to discredit the election and put pressure on the government. They are saying, ‘You have to accommodate us or we will make noise about professional aspects of the election.’ “
John Sifton, of the Human Rights Watch organization, said the fraud allegations might have been avoided if more international monitors had been on the ground. Just 230 international observers were available.
A panel made up of United Nations representatives and political candidates will investigate the claims as ballot-counting begins within a few days. Results are not expected for at least two weeks.
Mr. Karzai, who is expected to win, said he will not negotiate with his opponents in the meantime.
“If I’m elected, no horse-trading; no horse-trading,” he said. “I was disappointed that the ink was not strong, but that does not diminish the value that the Afghan people give to the election.”
Initial estimates suggested that 60 to 80 per cent of the 10.5 million registered voters turned out to vote on Saturday. Millions lined up at mosques, hospitals and schools, hoping to elect a leader capable of ending a two-decade cycle of war. In major centres such as Kabul, Bamiyan and Kandahar, voters ignored Taliban warnings against participating, enduring snow, rain and dust storms in the process.
Karimullah, 50, a civil servant, said it was one of the most important days of his life.
“Men, women voted and it was a free choice,” he said. “I voted in the mosque and everyone was joyful. Even if the other candidates boycott the election 10 times, I still gave my vote. I will not change my mind.”
Mr. Karzai needs at least 60 per cent of the vote to have a strong mandate to push through his reform agenda, which includes disarming private militias, fighting the opium trade and establishing the rule of law. He has been hampered for the past three years by coalition agreements he has made with military commanders who are heavily involved in the drug trade.
“He has had rogue elements in the government tell him, ‘Do this or we will destabilize Afghanistan.’ But now that age is over,” the cabinet minister said.
Although about 40 people were killed in heavy election-day fighting between insurgents and U.S.-led coalition soldiers, the Taliban’s promised attacks did not materialize, partly due to the security provided by 100,000 international troops and Afghan police.
Yet the security threat is not over. Once the thousands of extra North Atlantic Treaty Organization and coalition soldiers leave, insurgents will continue to attack, said Nick Downie, project co-ordinator of ANSO, a non-profit organization that provides security advice to charities.